King’s Head Theatre, London – 2 February 2019
The revival of David Grieg’s 2002 play, Outlying Islands, at the King’s Head Theatre reintroduces a play of wonderful, haunting poetry and complexity, a flawed but brilliant piece of writing. Set in 1939, it features two ornithologists ‘from the Ministry’ arriving on a remote, abandoned Scottish island to survey the bird population. Robert is confident, charming and somewhat pathological in his obsession with scientific observation, of humans as well as birds. John is Scottish, nervous and hidebound.
They are rowed over by the island’s owner, Kirk, a grey-bearded Presbyterian with a hatred of sin and cinemas and his niece Ellen, who at first seems shyer than all of them. This is a fictionalised Gruinard, the Western Isle contaminated with anthrax during World War Two experiments, and left uninhabitable for 50 years, and the scientists are there to survey the birds which are soon to be wiped out, along with all other signs of life.
Most writers would stick to that story, but Grieg is a subtle an unpredictable playwright. Over the course of a full length play, he spins out unexpected events, family drama and relationship tension among the four, living alone in wild conditions. Back on shore the world is gearing up for war, but the island sits apart.
The play is set in ‘the chapel’, a single room hut with nothing but a stove, broken door and a table, the only piece of furniture on the island – recreated with conviction by designer Anna Lewis. But Kirk says it is a pagan place, and its people are best gone. Far from civilisation, the four remain until the boat returns for them in a month’s time. Perhaps they have a chance to live more like the birds Robert and John photograph everyday, who let the wind take them. But they are recording what lives on the island precisely so it can be destroyed.
Jessica Lazar’s production is an excellent, enthralling account of a fascinating play. The intensity of the four performers shines through on the King’s Head’s tiny stage. Ken Drury as Kirk is both bullying and comic, darkly describing Edinburgh as a place of “random defecation”. Jack McMillan as John is a mass of inhibitions, which makes his final attempts to open up particularly moving. Tom Machell is mercurial and idealistic as Robert, wordly but unable to square the contradictions between the natural and human codes of being. And Rose Wardlaw as Ellen gives the most surprising performance of all, physically unfurling as she frees herself from the burdens of social and sexual expectations. Grieg gives her two remarkable speeches, one in which she describes spying on one of the men, masturbating on the cliffs, and another in which she recounts the legend of the island’s creation by a giantess, scattering sheep droppings from her apron pockets as the Western Isles form.
Outlying Islands is difficult to classify, containing elements of political thriller, an Ealing comedy, folk horror, a coming of age story, a war story, a documentary about the limits of human existence, and a utopian island experiment. This is its strength, and Grieg’s confidence as a writer shines through. The play reminds us of other genres but is simply itself. The King’s Head should be congratulated for a powerful, engrossing production of a modern classic that lodges itself in the mind, sending us into the Islington night to dream of a world where we could take wing.